Guide to food labelling

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These days, decision-making in the supermarket is fraught with ethical and nutritional dilemmas. Free-range or barn-laid eggs? Biodynamic or organic strawberries? Here's our guide to the jargon found on food packaging.

'Free-range' hens are housed in sheds and have access to an outdoor range during daylight hours.

No additives/preservative-free: Additives and preservatives have traditionally been included in food to make the food last longer or to improve its taste and appearancei,ii,iii. Without additives, some foods would be unsafe to eati,iii.

Organic/biodynamic/biological: Organic farming is a type of agriculture that requires sustainable ecosystem management. The term also refers to food production without the use of artificial fertilisers and pesticides, or synthetic chemicalsiv. Animals on organic farms are usually raised in natural living conditions, that is, in free-range outdoor areas, and are fed organic fodderiv.

Products that claim to be organic can either be entirely organic or use ingredients that are organic. There are numerous bodies and minimum standards in Australia that certify organic products. This certification might be in the form of a symbol, logo, trademark or claim stating the product is '100% organic', 'Made using organic ingredients' or 'Certified Organic'v.

Hormone free: 'Hormone free' labels indicate that no hormones or steroids have been used to increase the growth rate of the animalvi. Hormone Growth Promotants (HGPs) are used in Australia to boost weight gain in cattle. By Australian standards, they are considered fit for human consumption and are not harmful to animalsvi. HGPs are inserted behind an animal's ear and gradually release a dose of hormones over time. They have been traditionally used to reduce agricultural costs and produce larger cattle with less feedvi. In Australia, the practice of adding hormones to chicken meat production is banned and the standard is that all chickens are 'hormone free'vii.

Permeate free: Milk permeate is the milk sugar (lactose), vitamins and minerals that remain after the fat and protein have been extracted from milk to be used in the production of other dairy products, such as cream and cheeseviii. Permeate, which exists naturally in milk, is usually re-added to the milk formula to standardise nutritional levels in milkviii. Since the nutritional composition of milk can vary according to breed, farming methods, regional and seasonal changes, milk permeate helps producers ensure that the milk tastes the same and has the same nutritional value all year roundix.

The Dietitians Association of Australia claims that both types of milk (permeate-free and regular milk) are nutritious.

Producers do not have to list permeate on the ingredients list for milkix. The Food Standards Code allows manufacturers to add or subtract milk components to or from milk as long as the total fat level remains at least 3.2% for full cream milk and the protein at least 3% for all types of milkix. The Dietitians Association of Australia claims that both types of milk (permeate free and regular milk) are nutritious with minimal nutritional differenceix.

Best before date: The 'best before' date indicates that the product may have lost some of its quality but is still safe to eat after this date passes so long has it has not been damaged or shows signs of deteriorationx. It can also be legally sold after this date. Correct storage of these foods will prolong their shelf-life.

Use-by date: Foods labelled with a 'use-by' date must be eaten or thrown away by this datex. It is illegal to sell foods after their 'use-by' date has expired because the food may be unsafe to eatx.

Cage eggs: Eggs that are labelled 'cage' refer to the conditions in which the hens that laid them are keptxi. 'Cage' means that the hens are continuously housed in cages within a shedxi. 'Cage' eggs are typically the cheapest option for eggs.

Barn laid eggs: Eggs that are labelled 'barn laid' refer to the conditions in which the hens that laid them are keptxi. 'Barn laid' means that the hens are free to roam within a shed, which may have more than one levelxi. Whether hens are kept in barn, cage, or free-range conditions, farmers must comply with the animal welfare provisions set out by the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1979 (Cth).

Free-range: 'Free-range' farming practices mean that the animals on the farm can roam freely in an open areaxii. Eggs that are labelled 'free-range' refer to the living conditions of the hens that laid themxi. 'Free-range' means that the hens are housed in sheds and have access to an outdoor range during daylight hours for a minimum of eight hours per day, as well as shaded areas and shelter from rain and windxi. 'Free-range' also specifies that there can be a maximum of 1,500 hens per hectare, with the exception that higher numbers are allowed provided that hens are regularly rotated onto fresh range areasxi.

There is no national trademark which certifies that the eggs are 'free-range'; rather there are several schemes that allow accredited producers to use their logo on egg cartonsxi. Other animal products may also be labelled 'free-range', including pork, beef, poultry and lambxii.

Country of origin: When it comes to country of origin labelling in Australia, it may be hard to differentiate between the various claims and logos on food products. 'Product of' (processed food) and 'Grown in' (fresh food) mean that each major ingredient or part of the product originated in the country stated and that almost all of the production processes occurred in that country as wellxiii.

'Made in' means that the product was made in the country stated and that at least 50% of the cost to produce the product was incurred in that country. A product that claims to be 'Made in Australia' does not necessarily have to contain all Australian ingredients. Similarly, some products may claim that they are 'Proudly Australian owned' or '100% Australian owned', which refer solely to the ownership of the company that makes themxiii.

Fair trade: 'Fair trade' products are grown and manufactured under the fair trade umbrellaxiv. The movement aims to give producers a fairer price for their goods, and invests in programs for economically disadvantaged communitiesxiv. Fair trade also focuses on environmental sustainability and bans child exploitation and forced labour on their productsxiv. In Australia, fair trade certification labels can be seen on a variety of food products including chocolate, coffee, spices, and spreadsxv.

Low-GI: The glycaemic index (GI) is a ranking of carbohydrates on a scale of 0 to 100 according to the extent to which they raise blood sugar levels after eatingxvi. On this scale, foods with a high GI are those that are rapidly digested and absorbed, resulting in fluctuations in blood sugar levels. Low-GI foods, however, are slowly digested and absorbed by the body, resulting in gradual rises in blood sugar levels. A low-GI diet is recommended for people diagnosed with diabetes and for weight management as it aids in controlling appetite and delaying hungerxvi.

i Nogrady, B 2013, 'The hard facts on food additives', ABC Health & Wellbeing, 14 February, viewed 20 August 2013,

ii Better Health Channel 2013, Food additives, viewed 20 August 2013,

iii Food Standards Australia New Zealand 2012, Additives, viewed 20 August 2013,

iv Better Health Channel 2013, Organic food, viewed 20 November 2013,

v Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Organic claims, viewed 20 August 2013,

vi Meat and Livestock Australia, Hormone growth promotants, viewed 2 September 2013,

vii Australian Chicken Meat Federation, The Australian Chook – Your Everyday Choice, viewed 20 August 2013,

viii Dietitians Association of Australia, Milk permeate, viewed 20 August 2013,

ix Choice 2013, What's in your milk?, viewed 20 August 2013,

x NSW Food Authority, Food labels, viewed 20 August 2013,

xi NSW Food Authority 2013, Labelling: Egg production systems, viewed 20 August 2013,

xii Australian Meat Industry Council, Free Range & Organic, viewed 20 August 2013,

xiii Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Country of origin, viewed 20 August 2013,

xiv The Fair Trade Association, Frequently Asked Questions, viewed 20 August 2013,

xv Fairtrade Australia New Zealand, viewed 2 September 2013,

xvi The University of Sydney 2012, About Glycemic Index, viewed 20 August 2013,